The tooling business is developing its own superstore complex. And depending on which side of the fence you're sitting, you either think that's a good thing or that it's a crying shame because it will ruin the artisans who built this cottage industry.
The facts are indisputable: Some mold shops are getting larger in size. They are taking on more functions, such as part sampling or prototyping or assembly. They are inheriting upfront product-development work.
All that sounds great in theory. It means that the toolmaking industry is beginning to get its due after years of toiling for more respect.
Where some mold makers once complained that their products were being treated as commodity items, now they are considered the foundation to good design and engineering.
Yet, some mold makers still will complain. They see huge tooling packages being shunted to a few large shops, with the smaller mold makers relegated to second-tier status. They see more work going to multinational tool shops, many of them based in Canada.
The truth is that many of the midsize and smaller shops feel vulnerable. A lingering downturn in business has not helped. The recent financial troubles of Hobson Mould Works Inc. has set off alarm bells.
And, of course, when customers move to build tools in Asia, that sends another cannon blast across the bow of many U.S. companies.
We sympathize with their unease. In some ways, it is similar to what independent bookstores feel when Barnes & Noble comes to town, or what the U.S. steel industry experiences as business shifts overseas. Change can be a bitter pill to swallow. But, as many larger shops have proven, threats also can be opportunities.
Smaller shops need to do a better job looking globally for work, an area most of them continue to ignore. Meanwhile, their larger brethren either have set foot in Asia, or plan to soon.
Smaller firms need to become full-service operations, instead of believing that cutting steel alone will preserve business. And they need to partner with others.
There's a lot that can be done. Many old-line toolmakers need to take that higher road instead of a path filled with resentment at work that is passing them by.
After all, many of the larger shops had to start somewhere.
Sure, a lot of them come from Canada. And some U.S. toolmakers also make the case that the favorable exchange rate gives them unfair advantage.
Yet, if the shops in Canada were not providing quality work, currency exchange would make no difference.
Griping does no one any good. Vision and forethought go a longer way toward success.